Sermon for Pentecost 15 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning’s Gospel contains what is probably the most baffling of Jesus’ parables. If you were paying attention it might have struck you as more than a little odd. It might have seemed like I misread something to horrible effect, because it seems to run counter to everything we know about Jesus: And I tell you, [he says] make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.

So troubling are these words that, even from very early on, some Christians have tried to argue that this is a mistake in how Luke recorded our Lord’s words, and critics of Christianity have used it as proof of the faith’s inconsistency. Julian the Apostate—the Roman Emperor who reverted to paganism after his uncle Constantine and cousin Constantius had turned toward Christianity—claimed this passage as proof that Jesus was no more God than any other fallible human. And if we look at the text, it appears that Luke himself might not have known what to do with this saying. Surely, he included it because Jesus said it, but then he follows it with a number of Jesus’ other, apparently contradictory sayings about the dangers of money. So, we go from “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” to “you cannot serve [both] God and wealth” in the span of a few verses. Now, I don’t doubt Jesus said all these things; I’m just suggesting that Luke might not have done the best job of editing and making sure everything was in its proper context.

So, what the heck are we going to do with this? Let’s start with a couple of important points about how to read parables. You will remember from last week that we sometimes misunderstand parables because we reckon their protagonists to be us rather than God. Keep that in mind.

Another thing about parables to keep in mind is that theymay have allegorical features but they are not mere allegories. An allegory is basically a work in which there is a one-to-one correlation between characters and actions in the text and in real life.

But parables are not simple allegories. They give us an insight into the nature of God or of the Christian life, but not every detail is meant to sync up with the reality. So, in last week’s Gospel we heard the parable of the lost coin, and determined that the woman was to be seen as God and the coin as the lost soul (these are, no doubt, allegorical features) but the woman’s poverty is a plot device rather than a symbol suggesting that God is somehow poor or lacking something in himself.

So let us apply these two facts—that we often mistake whom the parable is about and that parables are not mere allegories—to this morning’s Gospel. Remember what happened? The steward is fired for defrauding his master, and he proceeds to collect less than what is owed from the master’s debtors in order to ingratiate himself to them. Ultimately, the master commends the steward for his shrewd rejection of justice. The just, or righteous, path would have been to collect all that was owed, but such justice often lacks mercy. The steward is less interested in what is fair than he is in what is effective in bringing about rapprochement.

Now, what if this parable is not about us and our business dealings? What if it’s actually about a different sort of economy, namely the economy of salvation?

This would seem to be in keeping with the interpretation we gave last week regarding the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. It’s also, I think, the principle meaning of the parable our lectionary skipped over between last week and this morning (namely, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, skipped not because it is unimportant, but rather because it is so important that we heard it at Mid-Lent). This suggestion that the parable is not really about money but about salvation requires us to accept the suggestion I made a little earlier that while Jesus did, in fact, present these four parables as a unit, the inclusion of the last four verses of this morning’s reading was a perhaps ham-handed editorial choice made by Luke.

So, I don’t believe the parable of the unjust steward is really about money at all. I’ve seen some modern interpretations that claim the opposite, that try to give the parable a sort of Marxist gloss; some of you will disagree with me (and that’s fine) but this does not strike me as a terribly likely or faithful reading of the text.

Also remember, parables aren’t simple allegories, so we don’t have to see the steward’s initial unfaithfulness and incompetence as anything other than a plot device to get the story going. His moral status and business skills at the beginning of the story isn’t the most important thing here. The important part is what he does with the debtors. They owe something, and the steward cuts them a break so that he might be taken in by one them.

This is called “dishonest” in our translation of the parable, but I think this is one of those occasions on which the New Revised Standard Version yields an inferior translation to its predecessors. The Greek here reads “τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆϛ ἁδικίαϛ”: “the wealth of unrighteousness.” The point is not that the money is dishonest but that it is unrighteous. Now, in Jesus’ context “unrighteous” would have been reckoned a synonym for “unlawful”, because that’s what a first-century Jew would have understood the word “unrighteous” to mean. The law demanded full payment.

So, if the unjust steward is supposed to be Jesus himself, I contend that the parable is not about money at all. It is rather about the human soul and sin and our just deserts. By all rights, we’ve got a debt we cannot pay. The fair thing, the lawful thing, the righteous thing, would be for each of us to suffer the consequences, and those consequences would, no doubt, be eternal. But just like the steward, who desired to live with one of the debtors, Jesus desires to dwell with us and within us. And just like the steward, Christ knows that that can’t happen if he follows “the rules”.

That we can have a relationship with Jesus is not fair; justice would demand the opposite. If a friend were to constantly turn his back on any one of us, to break faith and defraud us, we would be just to end that friendship. So, too, would God have been within his rights to cut us loose. The children of Israel had what we might characterize as a conditional relationship with God. God promised to remain faithful if and only if they kept their end of the bargain, if they followed the laws and ordinances of the Old Covenant. They didn’t. We are supposed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. We never did a good job of this, and we still don’t. But then what God did was shocking, an affront to fairness and justice. He said “no more conditions. I will love you unconditionally.” That wasn’t the deal. He didn’t have to do it, but He loved us so much that He desired to stay in relationship with us whatever the costs to Himself, knowing that the cost would ultimately be His own life. Mercy has trumped fairness; love has overcome the law.

As I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have any expectations. What it does mean is that there isn’t anything we can do to make God stop loving us. He’s broken the rules for us already; He’s bailed us out when we should have been left in chains. Thankfully we have an opportunity to do a little toward repaying this debt which has already been forgiven. We can offer our thanks, which is why we keep showing up here week after week. We can try to love Him back, even if we haven’t enough love in us to go very far in that regard. Most of all, we can permit Him to live in our hearts. That is not a one-time deal, no matter what the televangelists tell you. That is a daily choice. We can let Him in or evict Him. But before we do the latter, let’s remember that that’s why he bent the rules in the first place. That’s why he showed mercy when justice demanded wrath. He who on earth had no home, wants only to live in us.

This leaves us with one remaining, potentially uncomfortable question. Somebody is getting defrauded in the parable. The rich man doesn’t get paid back, and the unjust steward clearly realizes that his choice of mercy over justice will make him unpopular with his former boss. Now, we could just say, as I said a few minutes ago “parables aren’t allegories, and this is just a plot device”, but I think if one scratches under the surface of this question the plot, in fact, thickens.

Has Jesus Christ, the Son of God, been unjust toward God the Father? Has God himself been defrauded? By no means!

This would indeed be a problem; it would render meaningless the Church’s definition of the Trinity and it would further mean that God was somehow incapable of maintaining perfection. However, in the one perfect offering, sacrifice, and oblation of Christ on the Cross, the sin debt has been paid and God’s honor has been satisfied.

Who then is the rich man laid low by the operation of God’s Grace? The Church Father’s present us with an ingenuous solution. Jesus did engage in defrauding Satan, and the powers of death and hell are left comfortless and without recourse to collecting their due. This, the Fathers argue, is what it means when the author of today’s Epistle referred to Christ Jesus as a “ransom for all.” We owed everything, and a kidnapper tried to collect on the debt, but the Great Creditor paid Himself, and in a manner which at the same time bankrupted the one who thought himself so clever.

Think of it this way. It’s like the Crucifixion was one of those heist movies where the thief gets double-crossed and opens up the suitcase to discover it’s full of underpants or something instead of money. There was a switcheroo, and the thief is never going to get paid. In this case, it’s like the devil and he thinks the suitcase is full of souls but it’s got a time bomb in it instead.

St. Augustine put it this way:

The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors.

Or take those moving words from the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which I read every Easter Vigil:

You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

So, the Lord God has done some creative accounting when it comes to the economy of Salvation, but I for one am not going to lose any sleep over the one it forced into filing Chapter 11, because Hell is one corporation that could stand to benefit from some administrative restructuring.

My earlier point about the Marxist reading being inappropriate notwithstanding–since we’re talking about something much more important than money here–I suppose this is the one kind of redistribution of wealth we can all get on board with, regardless of our political philosophy. We are all beneficiaries of the economy of the Kingdom of God so long as we permit that clever, wily, unjust manager, whom we welcomed into our homes, and into whose own eternal home we will ourselves be welcomed on the last day.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 14 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The problem with parables is that they meant a lot to the people to whom Jesus first told them, but they may (at least initially) mean less to us. This is because our context is so different from that of a first century Jew in Palestine. We hear the parable of the lost sheep, and probably think the shepherd rather daft. He’s still got ninety-nine sheep safe at home, and the dangers inherent in searching for the one lost sheep are likely not worth the risk. The woman who’s lost one of her ten coins might seem a little more believable to us, at least from a mathematical point of view. She’s lost a tenth of her wealth to the shepherd’s one-hundredth. Even so, calling the neighbors over to celebrate finding one measly coin that was in one’s house the whole time seems like overkill.

Yet, if we were to place ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ first century listeners, these parables would have made perfect sense. A conscientious shepherd would have been sorely grieved by the loss of one sheep and would have put himself in harms way to seek it out. The modern language of “satisfactory percentage” and “acceptable loss” would have been foreign to the first century shepherd, because if he were a good shepherd, his sheep would not be considered a mere commodity, but rather an extension of himself. Thus, his grief upon losing the sheep and his great joy upon finding it would have been natural. It would have been as if he had lost and found a missing part of himself.

Likewise, the woman with the lost coin can be understood to have found something more than a bagatelle. Objectively, one silver coin, or drachma wasn’t worth that much. It was one day’s wage for a laborer. Additionally, those who lived remember the 2008 crash and might see the loss of a tenth of one’s wealth as less than catastrophic. Some of us, I’m sure, lost a great deal more in investments during that period; and at least you can write those losses off come tax time, right?

Well, we get a distorted view of the plight of the woman in the parable if we view he through that modern, middle class lens. For that matter, we’d get a distorted view of contemporary poverty were we to do so. I can’t tell you how often people come into my office—people who live on the very edge of penury in Findlay, Ohio in 2019—for whom five or ten bucks means enough food to get on. It’s a trifling amount of money to me, but it’s salvation for some.

So, in both parables we’re dealing with a seemingly insignificant object, whose inherent worth is only realized through the grief of the one who loses it and his or her joy upon finding it.

Now, the second, even more important way we might get these parables is in misidentifying their protagonists, where the lost object is assumed to be God and the human soul its seeker.

But Jesus’ words make it rather explicit that we are not the shepherd or the woman; God is. We don’t need to worry so much about “finding Jesus”, because he’s the one who invariably finds us. When we like sheep have gone astray, Christ the Good Shepherd grieves the loss and then strikes out into the wilderness to take us back, his finding us restoring the very joy of God. When we like the coin fall through some crack in the floorboard of our existence, God, like the woman in the parable, will tear up the house, will turn it over if he needs to in order to find us.

You see, God might not be as immovable and implacable as we think. He’s certainly got a Plan and a Will, He’s certainly perfect in strength and virtue, but He can also feel tremendous sadness. God is love, and when love goes unrequited, the response is grief. When we are not in His presence, when we wander lost through the wilderness of self-willed depredation, which is the state of sin, we grieve God’s heart of love.

The Good News is that He does not then disown us. He seeks us out. He will and has searched for us as far as the depths of Hell itself; and he has found us, he is still finding us, and he will find us at last. And his grief, being once as sharp as a sword piercing His breast, will at last be transformed into greater joy than we can imagine. The whole host of heaven will rejoice in our having been found, and we shall join with them in praising the God whom we didn’t presume to seek out, but who found us when we most needed him.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 13 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The readings appointed for this morning offer a grab bag, as it were, of challenging themes, from the Moses’ ultimatum to the children of Israel to Jesus’ discomfiting words regarding the sacrifices inherent in following the Gospel. There is much unpacking and explanation that should be done for both of these readings, but perhaps another time. I want, instead, to focus on the Epistle, Paul’s letter to Philemon. I feel compelled to focus on the Epistle, if for no other reason than because this is the only Sunday in the entire three year lectionary that we read from this little, relatively obscure book in the New Testament. The book is only twenty-five verses long, and we read twenty of them this morning, and we won’t hear them in church again until 2022. So, here’s our one shot at Philemon.

All of Paul’s Epistles can be called “occasional” in the sense that each of his letters is written to address a particular concern of a local church or of an individual. We’re fortunate that much of the situation which gives rise to the letter to Philemon can be inferred from the text.

Paul opens the letter with a little bit of what one biblical scholar called “holy flattery” in which Paul praises Philemon’s faithfulness. In other words, Paul butters Philemon up. He knows that his request will be unpopular, and yet he is confident enough in its appropriateness to claim his Apostolic authority, should Philemon refuse to take the recommendation. “Accordingly,” he writes, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” Like a parent, Paul wants Philemon to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, but he’ll force the issue if it’s important enough.

Finally, Paul gets to his request. He has run into this character Onesimus, or rather Onesimus sought Paul out, the Apostle being imprisoned at the time and not likely to come upon someone by chance. This Onesimus was Philemon’s slave and had run away. The precise events surrounding Onesimus’ escape are unclear, but what is clear is that the runaway slave is frightened of his master’s response should he return.

Indeed, Onesimus had reason to be frightened. According to Roman Law, a master could do just about anything he wished to a slave, and typically, a runaway slave, upon being returned would be branded on the forehead and would sometimes be forced to fight with beasts to the death. Slave and master would be brought back together, reconciled in a sense, but without any sense of equality.

But Paul pushes reconciliation on Christian terms, which is to say that real reconciliation is effected between people whom God has already made equal, and the terms of Christian relationship is fraternal rather than hierarchical. Hierarchies exist (between employer and employee, between parent and child, and so forth), and those hierarchies exist for the common good; but getting beyond the practical, often necessary distinctions which serve to make society function, on the deepest level the relationship between Christians as Christians is that of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Philemon should have known this, because he had surely heard it before. He had surely heard Paul’s radical reënvisioning of Christian relationships, because our equality under Christ was so central to Paul’s message and because Paul and Philemon were apparently so close. In all events, Philemon was about to hear that message again, not just in this private letter, but read out in the local church, which met in his own home.

We know that Philemon and his household lived in Colossae, because so many of the people whom Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Colossians are also mentioned in the Epistle to Philemon, including Onesimus himself, who is called “one of yourselves” in Colossians. In fact, the original copy of the Epistle to the Colossians, as we learn in the text of that letter, was delivered by Onesimus, probably also carrying the Epistle to Philemon. Whereas today’s reading was a private letter encouraging Philemon to do the right thing, the Epistle to the Colossians would have been read publicly in the church. And what does that letter say?:

Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scyth’ian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.

What is Paul doing here? I think he’s hedging his bets. If the private letter doesn’t convince Philemon to have mercy on Onesimus, perhaps the same message read out to the whole Christian community will force his charity in the matter.

Tragically, considering the sad history of slavery over the following two millennia, Paul never explicitly demands manumission of Onesimus or abolition of slavery more generally. Nineteenth century Anglican biblical scholar J.B. Lightfoot wrote, “the word emancipation seems to be trembling on his lips, and yet he does not once utter it.” Paul does, however, hint at it in the last verse of this morning’s lesson:

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

What more could Philemon do than what Paul had demanded in the letter? Well, set Onesimus free from slavery.

In all events, either because of the private letter to Philemon or the public letter to the Colossians, we know that Onesimus was made free. Ignatius of Antioch informs us that Onesimus went on the be Bishop of Ephesus, and the Apostolic Constitutions tell us that Onesimus and Philemon died together as friends, free men, and martyrs during Nero’s persecution of the Christians.

At its heart, the Epistle to Philemon is a challenge to all of us still. Certainly, the days of slavery are happily over in this land, but we still build walls between us for the sake of power or propriety. We still have a hard time creating relationships of genuine love as brothers and sisters, because we still see divisions which do not exist in the mind of God: divisions of race or class or power. We still permit our authority to distance us from those in our charge, or lack of power to scare us from building relationships with those we see as being “above us.” But if a slave and master in first century Greece can be reconciled, can become equals, can die together for the sake of their Lord, then our divisions can cease, too. May God do it, and may we be ready.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.